I guess it’s no surprise that I tried to become a Montauk charter boat captain (among the most elite and respected fleets in the history of the sportfishing industry). I have a history of pursuing irresponsible, grandiose careers for which I was remarkably unsuited and underqualified.
Stand-up comedy, for one. I was clever enough, even pithy, but my speech was slurred and garbled, bordering on inarticulate, and I was very nervous onstage. Despite all this, I managed to insinuate myself into the industry to some degree, working here and there and opening for some big celebrities. Just like with fishing, I had my moments.
I suppose I was always in search of fame and recognition; we all are, to an extent, but I took it to an extreme. I bet back in the 1900s, when it was a good and legitimate job (as outdoor circuses and county fairs drew thousands), I would have been well suited to being shot out of a cannon, although I don’t know the exact criteria for pursuing a career as a human cannonball. It’s hard to imagine that being shot out of a cannon would require a whole lot of talent. All you’d really have to do is get in the cannon and, once shot, remember to wave at the cheering crowd who are no doubt secretly hoping that the cannon misfires, overshooting the landing net, and sending your imbecilic corpse careening over the parking lot and splattering in an unrecognizable mess into the waffle truck. This would invoke more cheers and possibly a standing ovation, for sure.
I was not always a charter fishing boat captain. Upon graduating from the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point in 1989 and completing my tug and barge intern training on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn (summer of 1990, boy was it hot), I was assigned to pushing civilian cargo up the Suez Canal at the height of the first Gulf War. This was stressful, for sure, but nothing compared to working in New York Harbor, with its screaming current and narrow channels, or pushing a 50-ton cement barge up past the Kenai Peninsula on the way to Anchorage, Alaska, with 12-foot tides, or negotiating the Strait of Gibraltar . . .
Wait. Are you buying this crap? This is the story I used to tell gullible customers on the way out to the fishing grounds. It was fun to watch their minds process this information as they took in my disorganized boat, tangled anchor lines, and dull, vacant eyes. And when I told them I never went to the Merchant Marine Academy or the other places, we’d all have a good laugh.
They might have believed me a little at first, but the smart ones did not buy it, it just did not add up. Just like when I used to tell people I played Division 1 lacrosse at Hobart College, they’d think to themselves, there’s just no way.
The crux and motivation of what I’m doing here is to describe my experiences as the captain of a part-time charter fishing boat, hopefully illustrating in a humorous way why I simply am not fit to take people fishing for money — even if the popular discount platform Groupon sent them. Many trips ended well, but a few ended with horrified customers, clinging and jumping for their very lives.
Over the course of 15 years running a registered charter fishing boat and taking people out to Montauk Point, I have issued five official mayday distress calls and sunk two boats — with customers on them. I am far from proud of this. Luckily, every time, without fail, the Coast Guard came out, found us, and returned us to safety. They always did a great job and were always courteous.
In the last case, in November 2020, the Coast Guard had to pull me and my customer out of my swamped Boston Whaler. (A corroded grounding wire broke; we lost all power.) We were up to our ankles in water, close to hypothermic, and the wind was picking up. We were bailing water with a bucket. The incoming water was a result of being stuck in the rips, where the water depth goes from 60 feet to 30 feet; it was a full moon with the wind against the tide, so this causes tight, often breaking waves.
I did not care so much about myself, or my lost boat, but I remember thinking, “This nice man, who just wanted to fish, is going to die.” It was 4:30 p.m., we had an hour of daylight left, and my cellphone was running out of juice. I knew a commercial rescue boat wouldn’t enter large seas in the dark, so I dialed 911 and told the guy on the other end our predicament. I was able to get the GPS coordinates to him before my phone died, and exactly one hour later we saw the lights of a small Coast Guard boat.
It took us 90 minutes on rough seas and against the tide at four knots to go the nine miles back to the harbor. Three of the four Coast Guard crew were new recruits from Oklahoma, 1,500 miles from the nearest ocean. One of them said he “never expected to see anything like this.” Another one started puking. The head officer, who was experienced, was able to get us back safely through the dangerous area of water known as the Shagwong Rip.
And that’s not the worst example of my being unfit as a captain. In a couple of cases, customers of mine ended up in the water. Looking back, some of these incidents were so outrageous they were almost comical, but make no mistake, at the time I did not think they were funny at all. Every time the Coast Guard plucked my customers off my sinking and unsafe boat and brought us back to the safety of Montauk Harbor, I was always deeply mortified. Never did I think, Wow! This would be a great story for a book.
After feeling bad for the poor bastard who had been on my boat, I’d make plans to leave Montauk for a while, or think about quitting the game altogether in disgrace.
From “And Then They All Puked: Why I Should Never Have Been a Montauk Groupon Charter Boat Captain,” Jeff Nichols’s new book. He lives in Springs.